Six Books about Brave Female Spies
Tough women, secrets and smarts, and sneaky spying!
I love a peek at a secret world, and each of these books offers that very thing.
Only one title on this list is nonfiction, but I'm reading another one at the moment that's great so far (Agent Sonya: Moscow's Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben Macintyre, who also wrote the excellent book The Spy and the Traitor). I'll report back after I'm finished. A Woman of No Importance is a nonfiction book that also looks wonderful.
Because I'm nothing if not greedy, other nonfiction books in this genre on my to-read list that I'm particularly excited about are: Liar Temptress Soldier Spy (civil war) by Karen Abbott, The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone, and Code Name Lise by Larry Loftis.
Kate Quinn, the queen of historical fiction about women who are spies, recently recommended these titles that fit the category, only one of which I've read: Shining Through, The Secrets We Kept, Code Name Verity (see below), An Extraordinary Union, Black Roses, The Blue, Spy Princess, Celia Barth, and Invisible Woman.
If you like stories about brave women during wartime, you might also like the books I listed on the recent Greedy Reading List Six Great Stories about Brave Women During World War II.
I'd love to hear: What are your favorite (fiction or nonfiction) books about tough lady spies?
01 The Unexpected Spy by Tracy Walder
This is the only nonfiction book on the list. I love a peek at a secret world, and in The Unexpected Spy, Tracy Walder offers fascinating glimpses of her life as a CIA and an FBI agent, including training details, political machinations, and significant and rankling discrimination.
She explores her own glowing pride in doing her job well and protecting others from danger. Her evolution into her present-day self and current profession was satisfying to witness.
I really liked this--and would’ve liked it to be twice as long with even more more more detail!
St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley provided me with an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
For my full review of this book, see The Unexpected Spy.
02 The Huntress by Kate Quinn
This is the first of two Kate Quinn books on my list--and another promising book of hers, The Rose Code, about code breakers, was published this week.
With the Nazis an increasing problem for the Soviet Union, Nina Markova joins the Night Witches, an all-female regiment of night bombers. But Nina's resolve and training are tested when she becomes stuck in enemy territory.
Quinn's character-driven post-World War II story was wonderful, with compelling and lush detail about tough female pilots; life in the Siberian wild; Boston; antiques and photography; and the patient, persistent, creative detective work carried out by the characters of Ian, Tony, and Nina.
You can see events unfolding while the characters involved remain unaware, but watching the pieces shift and click into place is immensely satisfying.
I'm in for all of the World War II-set books with tough, brave female protagonists, and especially female pilots, and I loved this book. For my full review, see The Huntress.
03 Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
In Wein's young adult historical fiction novel, it's 1943, and a British spy plane has crashed in Nazi-occupied France. The plane's young pilot and its passenger are best friends, but only one of the girls survives.
"Verity," the survivor, is a secret agent who is captured by the Gestapo. Her Nazi interrogators offer her a way out: reveal her mission and confess her crimes, or be put to death--and it won't be fast and painless.
Verity writes her extended confession, revealing her past, her friendship with the pilot Maddie, and various secrets she's gathered while being a spy. Is she laying groundwork for her release, or spinning webs more complicated than her captors imagine?
This World War II-era story of female pilots and spies is written in two points of view. At first I found the structure of Verity's letters somewhat distracting, but it grew on me. And while the second section isn't a complete surprise, I found it really satisfying.
04 The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale is Kristin Hannah's very popular book set during World War II about a family stretched to its limits in the face of the horrors of Nazi-occupied France.
Hannah's books and I don't always (or often) get along. I find myself distracted by small moments that don't seem to follow with the story she's laying out, and I can't dive into the story.
But this book and I got along like BFFs. The Nightingale offers moments of bravery, scenes of terror, and acts of pure love. There are some moments I found melodramatic, but I thought Hannah's story was really, really engaging.
I felt somewhat manipulated at the end of The Nightingale because of circumstances surrounding the modern-day point of view, but I was okay with it.
If you missed this book when it came out, it's one that's worth a slot on your to-read list.
05 Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
This is the first book in Graudin's young adult duology (the second, Blood by Blood, is also great). The premise hooked me, but I loved Graudin's execution of the story even more.
In an alternate reality it's 1956, and Hitler and the Axis powers are taking over the world. Yael, a tough young woman who escaped from a concentration camp, has been training as a spy for years, while cultivating her hatred of the Nazis. Her goal: to win a ruthless, exclusive annual motorbike race through Axis-controlled lands. The victor of The Axis Tour is granted an audience with Adolf Hitler at the celebratory Victor's Ball. Yael plans to get close enough to the Fuhrer to kill him.
Oh, aaaand Yael has the power to skinshift so that she looks exactly like other people.
Buckle up for this one--it's unusual and fast-paced.
Graudin also wrote The Walled City.
06 The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
In this second book on the list by Kate Quinn, the stories of two women—an imagined World War I spy from the Alice Network (which actually existed) in France, and an American socialite looking for her cousin in 1947—are brought together across the decades.
I loved the strong female protagonists and seeing their fire and grit and growth.
Both of the more modern-day storylines were wrapped up neatly as with a bow. I would have been in favor of having the romantic element being tied up without the Eve aspect, or having neither of them tied up at all, but the “end of movie”-type closure for both felt too convenient, and even a little dismissive of the complexities of the time and the specific difficulties of the characters' situations.
But I was fascinated by the World War I focus and in many cases the spy details’ basis in reality. I wished I’d known the information from the author’s note as I read because of how much of the stories of the women’s lives was pulled from first-person records.